University of Toronto Magazine University of Toronto Magazine

Be the Change

Hopeful news on a few fronts

More than a quarter-million North Americans have suffered spinal cord injuries. Some are unable to walk or move their arms; others can’t live without a respirator to help them breathe. But according to Dr. Michael Fehlings, a neurosurgeon with Toronto Western Hospital and a University of Toronto professor in the department of surgery, we are entering a “golden era” of spinal cord research that may ultimately see patients walking away from their injuries. In “Unbroken Dreams” (p. 24) writer Marcia Kaye speaks with Fehlings about new surgical techniques and experimental drugs designed to minimize spinal cord damage immediately following injury. “There is real hope and there has been real progress,” says Fehlings, who expects to see some important results within three to five years. Kaye also spoke with Professor Molly Shoichet, the Canada Research Chair in Tissue Engineering. Shoichet is looking for ways to regenerate nerve cells, a technique that offers hope to people who have been paralyzed for years. If Shoichet and her team can find a way to stimulate new nerve cells, they may be able to restore some function in paralyzed patients. Although full mobility is the Holy Grail of spinal cord research, many patients would choose bladder control and sexual function over walking again, says Shoichet.

As incredible as this research is, even basic medical care remains woefully out of reach for many people in the developing world. Malawi, in southeastern Africa, for example, has only 100 doctors to serve a population the size of Ontario’s. James Orbinski, the co-founder of Doctors without Borders Canada, travelled to Malawi in 2004 and treated patients at the Zomba Central Hospital, where 90 per cent of the sick were HIV-positive. He also worked in Rwanda during the 1994 genocide. As managing editor Stacey Gibson writes in “A Doctor in Kigali” (p. 18), Orbinski’s experiences in Africa transformed him, but also inspired him – to establish Dignitas International, a humanitarian group that trains mostly nurses, lab technicians and other health-care workers in developing countries. Orbinski’s innovative idea provides people who have some high school education with the skills they need to deliver relatively straightforward but essential medical treatment. Just a few years old, Dignitas is already having a big impact in Malawi. Reading about Orbinski, one is reminded of Mahatma Gandhi’s exhortation to “be the change you want to see in the world.” For Orbinski, doing nothing is an unacceptable response to injustice.

On the other hand, doing nothing has been Canada’s only response so far to the threat of global warming. In “Smoke and Mirrors” (p. 30), writer John Lorinc interviews U of T professors in economics and law who argue that it’s time for Ottawa’s policy of inaction to change. They weigh the pros and cons of carbon taxes and other strategies for reducing greenhouse gases, and conclude that Canada ought to impose a national carbon tax, consider road tolls and “congestion pricing” to make it more expensive to drive, and invest more in public transit, particularly buses. The European experience suggests that a low-carbon diet does not wreak economic havoc. Canada should give the diet a try.

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